Thursday, May 20, 2010

Seeking Advice: Insights from the Briskin Consulting Study of Small-Retirement-Plan Sponsors

by Jeffrey Briskin
Principal, Briskin Consulting

While most sponsors of smaller defined contribution plans are generally satisfied with their plans, nearly a third are considering changing plans due to poor client service, a lack of fiduciary support and substandard participant educational resources. And most companies that are considering switching plan providers are rejecting commission-based bank and wirehouse broker dealers in favor of dedicated retirement plan providers, third party administrators (TPAs) and registered investment advisors (RIAs), according to preliminary findings from a new study just released by Briskin Consulting.

The Briskin Consulting Study of Small-Retirement-Plan Sponsors is based on a survey of 112 respondents serving as 401(k) plan sponsors at companies with less than 200 employees. Plan sizes ranged from $208,000 to $11 million in assets, with an average size of $1.44 million as of December 31, 2009.

Small plans...large opportunities

Since most businesses in America are smaller, privately owned enterprises, it's no surprise that smaller defined contribution plans comprise the largest and most fluid segment of the retirement marketplace. Generally, these plans are sold through RIAs, TPAs and registered representatives within banks and wirehouses, although a growing percentage are sold directly through small-business retirement groups within investment firms and insurance companies.

Many surveys of retirement plan sponsors focus on quantitative data, such as investment performance, enrollment rates and deferral percentages. The Briskin Consulting Small-Retirement-Plan Study avoids this well-traveled ground in favor of providing insights into the psychographic factors that affect plan sponsors' satisfaction and concerns with their role in managing their plan--and participants' expectations.

Typically, in a smaller company, an HR professional serves as plan sponsor, and managing it is only one of his or her many responsibilities.  While retirement plan salespeople often try to target the company's CFO or COO, it's their multi-tasking benefits/payroll/recruiter/counselor who often wields the greatest  influence when it comes time to review the company's current plan and conduct a new search. 

In the past, retirement plan providers were evaluated mainly on the variety and performance of investment options, the availability of call centers and online services, and their ability to create strategies to encourage enrollment and increase contributions.

In today's post-recession economy, companies are evaluating all benefit plans with an eye toward reducing costs and maximizing value added service. Plan sponsors in particular are asking for a higher level of education and advice to help them comply with ever-evolving regulations and tightening standards of fiduciary oversight.

Today, exceptional client service is far more important than online services. Five-star funds are of lesser value than sound strategies for managing investment risk. Increasing enrollment is less critical than helping employees make the right decisions while they're accumulating assets, when they're preparing for retirement, or when they leave the company.

Retirement plan providers who can address these issues and allay plan sponsors' worries stand a far better chance of retaining the business even when other factors--such as a change in senior management--spur calls for a new search.

This article summaries several key findings of the Study. To download a free copy of the full Study, go to or send an email to
Why sponsors worry

If we compare the issues that worried plan sponsors in 2007 versus those that concern them today, we see that the same subjects predominate their thinking.

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Enactment of the Pension Protection Act of 2006 created a whole new set of regulations that plan sponsors were expected to understand, evaluate, and implement in their plans, placing a heavier emphasis on meeting fiduciary obligations. Cost containment also became a major issue. Understandably, these are the greatest concerns among plan sponsors, with 87% concerned about complying with regulations, 74% concerned with meeting their fiduciary obligations and 81% facing pressure from management to keep plan costs under control.

These concerns have increased since 2007, as the recession has taken its toll on the well being of  companies and their employees while at the same time setting higher expectations for fiscal efficiency and corporate accountability.

It's also interesting to note that issues retirement providers once considered to be of critical importance, such as investment performance, enrollment percentages, and discrimination testing, weren't primary areas of concern to sponsors in 2007 and are even less so today, thanks to  automated enrollment, slimmed down workforces, and increasing performance commodization among investment classes.

Plan satisfaction is high--but there's room for improvement

In spite of the increasing level of worries among plan sponsors, the good news for incumbent providers is that 63% of plan sponsors are generally satisfied or very satisfied with their plans. Only 29% are either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their plans. The remaining 8% have no opinion either way.

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Sponsors are most pleased with the overall quality of client service and compliance and operational support they receive from their providers, as well as the diversity of investment options. Not unexpectedly, however, the majority of sponsors are unhappy with the performance of these options, the level of fiduciary and regulatory guidance they receive, and the lack of transparency around fees. They also see room for improvement in participant education and find everyday plan administration to be increasingly complex and time consuming.

Why do companies switch providers?

The time and effort involved in switching plan providers can create strong resistance to calls for change, even among smaller companies. Fifty seven percent of survey respondents indicated that their company has no intention of changing plans over the next three years and 10% haven't even thought about it. Of the remaining one third who are either likely to switch plans or are in the process of evaluating new providers, most cite poor client service  (92%), lackluster participant education programs (62%) and substandard fiduciary and regulatory advice (61%) as their main reasons for their decision to look elsewhere.

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Interestingly enough, the performance and selection of investment options and plan costs are not among the most important factors in motivating a search. And, contrary to common belief, dissatisfaction among plan participants has relatively little influence over the decision to change providers.

Who sold them the plan...and from whom will they get their new plan?

Most plans in companies with less than 100 employees were sold through TPAs, banks/wirehouses, and RIAs. Plans in larger companies were sold primarily through TPAs, investment/financial services firms, and RIAs.

Of the one third of plan sponsors who are either in the midst of evaluating providers or considering making a change, it is interesting to consider their likelihood of using (or not using) certain kinds of providers. Note that respondents could enter responses for more than one category.
  • 46% intend to using a dedicated 401(k) plan provider within an investment or insurance firm (such as Fidelity or Vanguard)
  • 34% intend to use a TPA or outsourced benefits firm
  • 27% intend to use an RIA or other independent advisor 
  • 12% intend to find a plan through a wirehouse or bank
  • 6% indicated other sources (investment consultants, etc.)
Sponsors were also asked to indicate which kinds of providers they would not use. Bank/wirehouse brokers (73%) were far and away chosen as the least likely to be consulted, followed by RIAs (36%), investment/insurance firms (32%) and TPAs (30%).

Lessons for retirement plan providers

Contrary to common belief, investment returns do not drive satisfaction with or sales of small retirement plans. The post-recession market has made performance less of an issue. Instead, in an environment demanding a higher level of corporate accountability and where participants are still recovering from double digit losses in their 'nest eggs,' plan sponsors are demanding a higher level of retirement expertise, exceptional fiduciary support and effective participant-related investment and retirement planning advice from plan providers.

Firms that wish to win this business from smaller companies need to put fund lineups on the back burner and lead with client and participant service, emphasizing their ability to help plan sponsors ease their administrative burden and meet their fiduciary obligations.

Broker dealer reps within banks and wirehouses stand the most to lose in this environment, as the commission-based nature of their business precludes their ability to offer fiduciary-level investment advice. In addition, these reps rarely have the deep understanding of 401(k) regulations that sponsors are increasingly demanding from their providers.

In this environment, TPA firms and institutional retirement groups within investment and insurance firms have a stronger chance of winning 401(k) plans in this space. Fee-based RIAs who can supplement their ability to provide fiduciary advice with an ability to provide advice and assistance on plan management issues and exceptional participant education programs may also have a better chance of becoming their clients' trusted retirement advisor.

In addition to the Study, Jeff Briskin is available to present additional findings to your organization in person or via the web. Contact him at for information.